I’m not entirely sure why the Chicago Cubs doing all this winning and hurting their draft lottery chances became a thing this weekend. But I definitely saw it all over, with the Cubs winning their 5th in their last 6 games, and 9th in their last 13.
It’s not as if the Cubs haven’t been winning for a while now – they’ve been steadily “hurting” their lottery chances the entire second half, in which they have a solidly winning record. It’s also not as if we didn’t talk for months about just how bad so many teams were this year, and thus how hard it would be for the Cubs to actually stay in the bottom five or seven or whatever records.
Maybe it was because the Bears were (legitimately!) hurting their draft chances with a win yesterday, or maybe it’s just because we’re getting close enough to the end of the season that folks are checking the reverse standings more. Whatever the reason, I kept see the discussion of how the Cubs were winning meaningless games, and all they were doing was hurting their draft chances.
Apropos of those discussions, I had a lot of thoughts come to mind on why winning is good, actually …
1.) My initial joke response yesterday is not entirely a joke: the more the Cubs win, the more their SECOND round pick falls, which means the COST to sign a qualified free agent for them goes down slightly. You’re losing the pick either way, so it’s kinda like, whatever Brett, but I’m just saying, the calculated cost for the Cubs is going down slightly, since pick 46 is slightly more valuable than pick 50. So anything that makes those qualified free agents SLIGHTLY “less expensive” for the Cubs sounds good to me.
2.) Speaking of which, the Cubs are very likely to pursue some high-end free agents this offseason, and although money is going to speak the loudest, the players will definitely factor in near-term-chances-of-winning as at least a tiebreaker. Why would you want to pay $200 million for a player because he thinks your team is going to be terrible and thus you have to outbid the next highest suitor by $40 million? And even on the lower-tier free agents, you might want a guy on a one-year, $10 million deal, but so do four other teams. Wouldn’t it be nice to sell that guy on, in addition to your great amenities and city and coaching staff and fans and ballpark, the idea that your team is actually going to compete in 2023?
3.) The very existence of a lottery system softens the value of losing in the first place. The Cubs are now tied for the 11th worst record in baseball (they’re almost middle-of-the-pack, baby!), which means they have just a 1.4% or 1.8% chance of winning the top overall pick. But even if you have the 6th worst record, it’s not like you have a tremendous shot (7.5%). You really have to be in the bottom five to start seeing double-digit chances at one AND a virtual guarantee that you’ll pick in the top eight. Get this, though: it’s actually easier to fall when you’re in the top group than if you’re where the Cubs are. The Cubs, currently slotted at 10 because of a tiebreaker with the Angels, have extremely strong chances of getting the 10th or 11th pick (77%), a small chance of getting pick 12 (6%), and a decent chance of jumping into the top 6 (about 17%). Your odds of a better pick are absolutely better the worse your record. But we’ve been over this: if you’re not in the bottom five or so, the differences between records starts to diminish greatly.
4.) Relatedly, the future projected WAR returns from your first rounder flattens quite a bit after the first five or so picks. It varies year to year, but generally speaking, the hit rate after the first five picks starts to stabilize for much of the first round. (Even if you were no more likely to hit on pick 6 than pick 25, you’d still want the much larger bonus pool attached to pick 6, agreed. I’m just saying that, again, the difference between wherever the Cubs are landing now versus where they might land if they’d lost a few more games is pretty negligible.)
5.) As a revenue-sharing payor team (i.e., large market), the Cubs can’t qualify for a top six pick two years in a row under the new CBA anyway. So, if they don’t hit it in the lottery this year (now that their chances have gone down), they will have the chance of hitting in the lottery after next season (if, GOD FORBID, the team stinks in 2023).
6.) Winning right now, with younger or edge-case players, can help you make more informed decisions about the future of the roster. And you want to develop those guys for the future, too. Sure, we’d all love it if, in situations like this, the Cubs could magically lose all the games while all the key future contributors simultaneously explode with great performances. But neither of those things is reality. Instead, you want to see real developments and useful information. That is going to mean, if things are going well on those fronts, you’re probably going to, oops, win a few games in the process. Cost of doing business.
7.) There is also a cultural element to winning, as Nico Hoerner recently discussed. I am just a dude who types on his computer, but I do think there is a little something the whole “knowing how to win” stuff. You want the players to expect it. To fight for every single edge in every single game. You want them to feel like, even in a “lost” season, that each night’s game is theirs to win – because there is a mentality there that is probably a little bit sticky, year to year. Again, I’m not in a big league clubhouse so I can’t exactly put my finger on it, but I’ve heard it enough from enough different quarters to know there’s probably something there. The Cubs needed to build back up a culture of winning.
8.) Kinda related to the last two: if the Chicago Cubs are winning a lot in the second half after trading most of their bullpen and with half their regulars injured, isn’t that possibly a good sign about the coaching staff and the R&D departments? Like, maybe some of their under-the-hood strategies – in-game and big league player development – are really working? And thus if they had an actually strong roster, they might be winning a heckuva lot more games than you might think just from analyzing the sum of the parts? We’ll probably have a better sense on this after the season (i.e., if the coaching staff is all retained), but I tend to think if a roster like this is winning a lot of games, that’s probably a modestly good sign about all the things OUTSIDE that roster.
9.) Last but not least: at a game level, it’s more enjoyable to watch wins than losses. Yeah, the playoffs are the MAIN thing when it comes to wins and losses in the regular season, but aren’t we also just fans of watching the sport? I like to see the Cubs do good things, regardless of the postseason implications, because … because … how do I finish that sentence without just saying obviously? I enjoy watching the Chicago Cubs play baseball, and that process is even more enjoyable when they do more good things that day than the other team. We don’t have to overcomplicate some of this.
See? Winning is good, actually.
The Cubs aren’t facing worldbeaters in all these series, but having looked at the second half matchups at the time they were played, neither were the Cubs exclusively facing teams out of the race. Rather, more than half the Cubs’ series in the second half came against clubs that WERE still in the playoff race at the time of the series. And, besides, even with respect to the bad teams – you’re supposed to beat up on those teams if you’re not a bad team, yourself.